Today is a very important day in Europe. Today is the anniversary of the Armistice which ended World War I. The great war which enveloped Europe seems today a senseless slaughter of young men. For Europeans, 11 AM on November 11 marked the end of willingly making war. At that moment, Europeans had had their fill of war.
In Europe this day is called Armistice Day while in the US, it is called Veterans Day. In history, however, it is just another day which ended one conflict and sowed the roots for an even larger one.
My first memories of WWI were family stories about my Uncles who had fought with American units. I have no idea what impression the war made upon them, at least based upon family folklore. What I do remember, however, is seeing a man walking aimless the streets of my home town. This person, who today we would call a homeless, street person, would walk along the sidewalks until he came to a parking meter. He would stop, say something to the meter, and then salute.
I asked my parents about him. They said he had been in the great war and was suffering from “shell shock”. Hmmm.
My guess is today we would label this poor soul’s behavior as symptoms of PTSD. Over ninety years later and we can still see war’s impact upon veterans.
In England at the Tower of London, a sea of glass poppies, some 880,000+, have been planted in the moat surrounding the tower. This display has prompted a national outpouring of respect and gratitude to those who gave their lives in WWI.
In the US, the 7/24 talking heads cannot say “thanks for your service” enough. If they could, I think many of these personalities would thank parking meters if they thought their ratings would benefit. Sad.
Critics of these celebratory events recalling WWI point out that the reality of the war was quite different and must be recognized as well. Simply thanking members of the armed forces for their personal sacrifices misses the bigger point of why were they ever ask to take up arms in the first place?
Should we also be thanking government leaders who followed policies which invited a military response? Should we be thanking military commanders who lead their men into sure death by specific tactics they chose? Should we be thanking scientists and business leaders who developed and manufactured ever more lethal weapons and weapon systems?
If WWI seems to far in the past to be relevant today, think about the 12+ years following 9/11. Think about the slaughters in Afghanistan in pursuit of al Qaeda. Even more to the point, think about destruction of Iraq and wholesale killing of Iraqis and Americans in pursuit… of what?
I respect the service of the many Americans who were dispatched to Iraq (and Afghanistan) but I have trouble saying the words “thanks”.
Instead, I want to say “I’m sorry” that you were asked to perform a senseless mission. “I’m sorry” so many of you were asked to follow tactics which exposed you to horrible weapons of mass injury. “I’m sorry” so many of you have returned broken and missing limbs, and so many of you with post traumatic stress disorder who may not salute a parking meter but may needlessly hurt themselves or someone else.
Veterans Day should not be a day of celebration. Rather it should be a day when Americans are reminded of what can happen when leaders decide that wars can attain national goals.